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Alameda Firefighters Union Has Filled Leadership Vacuum

Dear Editor,

Here are two letters to the editor that I have sent to the local papers:

We are all to blame

As outrageous as what happened on Memorial Day weekend at Crown beach is, we, the citizens of Alameda are all to blame at some level. I for one who is a dues-paying, card-carrying member of the International Association of Fire Fighters and a retired member of a local fire department have watched a succession of placeholder Fire Chiefs lose control of the Alameda Fire Department by lack of action, self-serving policies and very little interest in our community. In the last ten years, we have had at least as many odd ball and in some cases plain incompetent leaders.

And because of that state of affairs, little or no leadership, the firefighters union has taken over leadership of the department. They have helped elect three of our council members (who have lost control of the union) and have engineered placing their retired President in the position of Interim Fire Chief, a part-time placeholder. Guess whose interests he will pay attention to.

Now, to the situation itself. It is inconceivable to me that someone that responded to the scene didn’t take it upon themselves to ignore rules, policies or procedures and do the right thing. Didn’t the paramedics on the scene realize that the person would be suffering from hypothermia and eventually succumb to the cold and collapse? Words escape me in my frustration over this situation.

The person who should be disciplined is the On Scene Incident Commander. This is where the buck stops during an incident. He/she should have known that Oakland Fire has a Cal Fire Swiftwater Rescue Team that is trained, equipped and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Alameda Fire is still a member of the Alameda County Mutual Aid Plan and the Incident Commander could have called Oakland for help. With an hour to get ready, they could have done the rescue.

It is sad to me that the Police Department is getting money to replace its dogs, and I hope they can be kept alive. That money should be used to train someone in public service on an island, DUH!, in rescue swimming.

The water rescue gear, on top of a locker gathering dust, in Fire Station One, should be a reminder to each and every one on that crew that this should never happen again. Another reminder is that pension reform is in the air and the firefighters union should keep that in mind when excusing their actions with “we weren’t certified.” Perhaps the City should require Rescue Swimming as a pre-hire condition.

Finally, there are enough retired and current members of the fire service that could oversee the selection of the next Fire Chief and make sure he/she is the person who can lead our department.


I too am a retired Fire Officer. And I am an Alameda resident who agrees completely with Lt. Lisker’s opinion letter. But I want to go one step further and place some of the blame on the current and past administrations here in the Island City.

Let me start with past Councils and their employees. Over the past 10 years, we have had almost that many Fire Chiefs. Of those, one or two of them were honest and reliable city employees that served the citizens well. The rest were either dishonest, incompetent or merely placeholders. When there is an absence of leadership, in our case, the Firefighters Union filled the void. They became stronger each time there was a gap in filling the Fire Chief’s position. In fact, they flexed their muscles and engineered the demise of the last permanent Chief. That was seen as a good move by the public. Few even noticed when they threw their support behind three candidates for the City Council. Their support may or may not be the reason the three got elected, but it becomes very suspicious when the retired Firefighters Union President is suddenly appointed Interim Fire Chief.

Why, we should ask, was he moved into that position prior to the new City Manager starting his new job? Why, again, do we appoint a person who never attained the rank of Chief, in lay persons terms, does he have the skills, knowledge and abilities to be a Fire Chief? And thirdly, isn’t this similar to the “fox guarding the hen house”? Can we rely on this individual to look out for the citizen’s interests after battling the City administrators for many years?

The current Administration offers us a “complete and transparent” investigation of the Crown Beach affair. How can we expect that from a Mayor who was politically assisted by the same group she insists she will “transparently” investigate? To have a “complete and transparent” investigation, a citizens committee should be empowered to see just what happened and why. Some of the issues that require a closer look are; who issued and signed the “no enter the water” policy, did the City actually refuse to pay for the training or was it a case of the Union wanting overtime for the training and who was the training officer at the time. Tapes from the local dispatch centers will clear anyone who actually called for Swiftwater Team assistance as has been claimed.

So we are all to blame for allowing the elected officials to appoint incompetents and make political positions available as payoffs. The Firefighters in this town should remember that the electorate all over is upset at public safety benefits and pensions. A lot of us in Alameda will remember Mr. Zack at voting time.

— Michael Kelly. Michael Kelly is an Alameda resident and a retired Oakland Fire Captain. Mr. Kelley managed the OFD 911 Center is still a member of Oakland’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team.

10 comments to Alameda Firefighters Union Has Filled Leadership Vacuum

  • Rev. Poodlesmurf


    Mayor: Alameda Tragedy Won’t Be Repeated in San Leandro

    I was saddened to learn of the tragedy that occurred May 30th when a man waded into the waters off of Crown Beach in the City of Alameda and apparently committed suicide, as emergency personnel watched from the shore.

    According to reports, budget constraints that led to the canceling of the local fire department’s water rescue program were the cause of the lack of response.

    This situation would not occur in San Leandro, despite the economic difficulties all cities have experienced in recent years. In 1995, our city chose to consolidate its fire department into the Alameda County Fire Department (ACFD).

    This consolidation of services has resulted in tremendous savings for us all. We were able to eliminate one fire company, reducing personnel costs, while maintaining response time as we picked up service from an ACFD station in San Lorenzo and other nearby communities served by the ACFD.

    Furthermore, since San Leandro is part of a regional fire department which also serves the Cities of Dublin, Union City, Newark, and several unincorporated areas of the county, we receive a broad range of services that a large organization can provide at an affordable cost, including specialized response teams for hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, and water rescue.

    Thanks to this arrangement, our city has two rescue boats on trailers available for rapid deployment.
    One is located at Station 11 on Catalina Street and the other is located at Station 10 on Williams Street. The boats are equipped with state-of-the-art navigation, communication, and rescue equipment. Two inflatable rescue boats are also available for rapid deployment.

    ACFD personnel train regularly in water rescue operations and can respond promptly to emergencies at the San Leandro Marina and in San Francisco Bay.

    The City of San Leandro is committed to providing timely and comprehensive emergency response for our residents, even in the face of budgetary restraints and continuing economic uncertainty.

    —Stephen H. Cassidy, Mayor
    City of San Leandro

  • Barb

    I couldn’t agree with Michael Kelly more. The fact that AFD and APD cannot see past their noses and own little fiefdoms has brought death to one of our citizens. Isn’t that enough? I think it is time regionalize many of our local services and assets. Everyday we travel to and through our neighbor Oakland. It is unindated with crime. Then we come back and see dozens of police cars and pieces of equipment sitting idle while officers give tickets to persons going through recycling bins. When we do have a serious crime, or situation, it is a training exercise for Alameda. The Alameda County Sheriff and Fire Departments have regional responsibilities and widely trained and used employees. They provide excellent service and rotate around the county putting the personpower where it is most needed. I think it is time to look into whether or not, Alameda has to have its own little department and pay huge management salaries to try to duplicate services provided elsewhere. Doesn’t mean we close our library, police station or fire houses. It means we trade up to better management, and get some real leadership. Thoughts?

  • hobnob

    Before this incident on Memorial day, I thought maybe some people were over-reacting, maybe people were more disgrunted than anything. Maybe we’re being unfair to the council and our phantom associations we draw.

    However, I really do think that AFD should be consolidated with Alameda County FD now and at least seriously look into that.

  • C. Gottstein, M.D.

    THANK YOU to retired firefighters Lasker & Kelly for posting their thoughts on this tragic incident. IMO, these are the ones most worth reading! If you have no time to read it all,City Council, at least read the op-ed pieces from these 2 men. This is the last best word.
    Meanwhile, as an M.D., I’m left to wonder why, from the incident audio tapes, there wasn’t an automated external defibrillator available for use @ the site when they brought Mr. Zack out of the water. It would have been worth a try.

  • joel

    Thank you Mr Laser and Kelly ,
    Politic has no place in the Fire dept or The Police Dept , I do praise our Police officers for staying out of the Politic and having class yet sharing the same concern.
    Captain Weaver said in these blog the reason the AFD were not leaving in Alameda is because they could not afford it , the City would not be safe if Mr Mattarese or Dehaan were elected , 6 months later, they are doing dammage control as the story is now very much global , I did correct several variation of their clean version to reflect the fact in at least 8 countries all the way from Lebanon Eastern Europe Western Europe and Australia including the link where the step Mother begged for help , no one anywhere in a civilzed nation should have to go thru that ever.
    A license to walk in 4 feet of 64 degree water ? are they serious.
    Alameda cannot rely on the Fire Dept period , these last few years they have saved zero structure ,yet they have equipment every fireman dream . Who will take care of the City when the real quake come in , they will be in their home far away from the City . that is a priority and they need to either leave within the City or get a job in the City they leave in . I found it disturbing that Oakland and Berkeley FD leave in Alameda but ours do not.Ifound the memorial posted on their web site for mr Zack extremely insulting .
    To answer your question about the no entry in the water , it is a self directed protocol not sanctioned by any Mayor . as far as being transparent it will be as much as my cup of coffee and milk , unless the Fed are involved in it and they should as this is nothing else but a case of assisted suicide totally illegal .

  • Michael

    The problem is that there is weak or absent administration of the Fire Department and the union is running the show. The union is representing the interests of the employees, but no one is representing the interests of the taxpayers. The union members receive very high salary and benefits and are able to fund a political action committee that then funds the political campaigns of those who continue their high salary and benefits. As a result, the taxpayers lose.

    We need someone who is willing to run for council next year who is willing to take on the firefighter union and contract with Alameda County Fire. I nominate Michael Kelly.

  • a94501er

    With idiots like Steven Archibald, the unions will continue to thrive.

    Oh wait, he’s a Libertarian. That explains his pathetic article in the Sun and the potshots against Liz Williams for her eloquent comments.

  • joel

    Iam not agaibnst union to the contrary , in thios case the firefighter union is not a labor union .
    On another subject , they may very well have violated the Civil rights of Mr Zack and this is an entire different matter it might be crininal.

  • donna

    They did contact Oakland, they claimed they did not have any boats. Also the incident was only 30minutes, the retrival was also 30 minutes, you stated that it was an hour, that is not correct.

  • Donna – you can see the timeline of events in documents posted to the Raymond Zack Project, here:

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